With just six regular-season matches remaining for the Minnesota volleyball team, this weekend carries extra importance.
Having lost two of their last three matches, the Gophers have come to a fork in the road. They can either finish the season strong, or they can continue their mini-slump and fade away in the final weeks of the season.
Minnesota (17-7 overall, 11-3 Big Ten) has the opportunity to take the first path, as it hosts two of the weaker teams in the conference in Illinois and Northwestern.
The 13th-ranked Gophers face the Illini tonight at 7 p.m. before taking on the Wildcats on Saturday at 8 p.m. Both games will take place at the Sports Pavilion.
Having lost to a struggling Michigan squad last week, senior libero Malama Peniata stressed the fact that Minnesota can’t underestimate either team in this
“Like we’ve said before, every night’s a hard night in the Big Ten,” she said. “We just have to learn from the loss and try to pick it up and play well against these two teams.”
Illinois (14-10, 5-9) finally recorded a win after suffering three straight losses to sub-.500 squads, defeating Iowa Nov. 2.
Struggling to find any sort of consistency this season, the Illini have so far proven the preseason prediction of a ninth-place finish to be true.
But Illinois has shown it can play against the top teams as well, completing a three-game sweep at No. 23 Ohio State on Oct 13. And needing another big win to earn consideration for the NCAA Tournament, Illinois will be looking for another upset.
Coach Mike Hebert expressed his concerns with both teams’ abilities, calling them dangerous.
“Both of these teams have their backs against the wall in terms of qualifying for the NCAA Tournament,” he said. “This is what’s difficult this time of year, because these teams are desperate for wins and they’re dangerous. Right now I fear both teams.”
Northwestern (13-10, 7-7) has posted a more respectable record and could solidify a tournament position with a road win over the Gophers.
The Wildcats have only won two matches in the teams’ last 26 meetings, but have recently been giving Minnesota a run for its money.
Northwestern pulled out a five-game win at Minnesota last season and lost in five games to the Gophers earlier this year.
The Wildcats head into the weekend riding a three-game win streak.
They will be led by junior outside hitter Lindsay Anderson, who has led Northwestern with 3.6 kills per game and .41 aces per game this season. Anderson has been hitting the ball well as of late, recording 39 kills last weekend.
Minnesota senior outside hitter Meghan Cumpston recognized both Illinois and Northwestern as legitimate threats and stressed the one-game-at-a-time approach as the key to winning.
“We needed to refocus after the loss to Michigan,” she said. “Now, we need to remember to take these matches one at a time and hopefully find a way to finish these last six games strong so that we can take sole possession of second place in the Big Ten.”